Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

in #aaalast year


Hollywood’s reliance on superhero films is phenomenon associated with 21st Century. In the past century, however, there were also attempts to create film series based on superhero comic books. One of the most successful was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 1990 film directed by Steve Barron.

The film is based on the comic book series originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the genre, as well as immensely popular animated television series that made its content more family friendly. The plot begins in New York City which is hit hard by a crime wave – series of brazen thefts and robberies committed by mysterious army of teenage criminals. April O’Neill (played by Judith Hoag) is television reporter who wants the investigate the matter and becomes too close to discovering that the mysterious army is The Foot, gang of ninjas led by masked leader known as Shredder (played by James Saito). He orders his minions to silence April, but she gets rescued by quartet of humanoid-looking pizza-loving turtles that are also very skilfull in martial arts – Leonardo (voiced by Brian Tochi), Raphael (voiced by Josh Pais), Donatello (voiced by Corey Feldman) and Michaelangelo (played by Robbie Rist). They were trained and guided by their master, giant mutated rat Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash) who, like four of them, had gained big size, intelligence and speaking ability after being exposed to mysterious radioactive ooze fifteen years ago. After The Foot manages to snatch Splinter, four turtles receive help in the form of Casey Jones, former hockey player and self-styled vigilante who would manage to penetrate the criminals’ secret lair.

The film was made nearly at the zenith of franchise’s popularity, with hundreds of millions of children enjoying the TV show, toy line and video games. Major Hollywood studios were, however, quite reluctant to try to exploit it in form of major live action film, still scared with the fiasco of similar film Masters of the Universe, which had contributed to the collapse of iconic studio Cannon Films. The was ultimately made by famous Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow and his Golden Harvest studio, later aided by New Line Cinema, which was still minor studio at the time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles received solid but relatively small budget, but those resources have been spent very well. The crucial decision was to use services of Jim Henson, legendary puppeteer and Muppets creator (who would die shortly after the premiere). His puppetry, combined with animatronics and use of actors in rubber suits, brought Turtles and Splinter to life and represents one of the finest examples of special effects in pre-CGI era. Those achievements are even better considering that it also had to feature characters applying martial arts, while being constrained with the need to have combat bloodless and family-friendly. This good work was matched by good cast, at least the section that played human characters. Judith Hoag is natural and quite charming in the role of audacious reporter and has good chemistry with young Elias Koteas, despite both characters being burdened with obligatory romance subplot.

Unfortunately, not everything was going right at the set and Steve Barron, director best know for music videos, was fired (allegedly because his vision was too dark) before the end on production and the film was ultimately finished by editors. Barron’s relative inexperience with feature film format can be seen in direction that makes certain scenes somewhat confusing and forces audience to pay much more attention than necessary for this sort of film. Another issue is in the script by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck, which really struggles to give specific characters to four protagonists and at times the audience has problems setting them apart. This issue is made worse by John Fenner’s cinematography, which is simply too dark and makes differently coloured bandanas worn by Turtles look the same. The dialogue lines given to those characters are often weak and uninspired; they also rely too much on 1980s pop culture references that would mean very little or nothing to the audience today. In the end, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could appeal only to the pre-teen audience or those who belonged to that category when the film got released. Critics didn’t like it, but their word mattered very little at box office. Teenage Mutant Turtles became the massive hit and for years held the record of independent film with the highest box office. Two inevitable sequels followed in next subsequent years, and in 21st Century there was animated feature film in 2007, as well as reboot in 2014, leading to its poorly received sequel in 2016.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

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